A well written serial killer can be the shining light of any book, film, video game or TV show. A man or woman who leaves a trail of destruction in their wake as they deftly avoided capture by our heroes. The real fear comes from the knowledge that unlike aliens or malicious ghosts or supervillains, serial killers are actually out there in the world. But we skill continue to create them in our fictions. Here are five of my terrifying favourites.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dexter (Season 4), The Mentalist, Hannibal/Silence of the Lambs, Heavy Rain and various DC properties
- The Trinity Killer (Dexter): For those you unfamiliar with the show, Dexter Morgan is a sociopathic serial killer who only murders criminals. Every season, he is given a new serial killer to catch and eventually kill. In season 1, it was the prostitute murdering Ice Trucker Killer; season 2 saw Dexter try to hide his true identity as the Bay Harbour Butcher; season 3 pitted Dexter against The Skinner. Then there was season 4. The Trinity Killer would murder a young woman in a bathtub, a mother by falling and a father by bludgeoning once a year in a random city across America. Dexter learns that the Trinity Killer is in fact the leader of a local church and charity organisation and engages in a battle to stop him, leading to some bloody consequences. What makes the Trinity Killer so terrifying is the departure from the show’s usual trope of the season serial killer being a damaged loner. There is a sharp contrast between the sweet and loving Pastor Mitchell and the cold-hearted Trinity Killer, which also provides a secondary contrast between The Trinity Killer and his double life and Dexter’s own double life, in which he essentially plays the same person just doing different things. Number of victims: 267+ (in context, the ‘worst’ US serial killer by number of victims, Gary Ridgeway/The Green River Killer, had 49 confirmed victims and was suspected of killing up to 90)
- Red John (The Mentalist): Introduced in the first episode of this charming ‘case of the week with a twist’, Red John was a California-based serial killer who was known for leaving a smiley face painted with the victim’s blood as the first thing people would see at the crime scene. He is the personal nemesis of series protagonist Patrick Jane, whose wife and daughter were murdered by Red John after Jane, then working as a psychic, denounced Red John during a television interview. As the show progress, we slowly learn more and more about Red John, such as his organisation of followers, known as the Blake Association, and are often teased with his appearance, such as at the end of season 2, where student film makers who made a slasher film with a real murder, are killed in front of Jane by Red John after he takes offence at their sloppy copycat work. Red John is eventually revealed to Napa County sheriff Thomas Atkinson, a man we actually met in the pilot of the show. He is killed by Jane at the end of the episode ‘Red John’. Number of victims: 41+ directly, countless more by members of the Blake Association (This would put Red John as the second worse US serial killer in terms of number of victims, putting him behind The Green River Killer and ahead of Ted Bundy).
- Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal/Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, Hannibal): Probably the most famous character on this list, Hannibal Lecter is a former psychiatrist and actual cannibal who terrorized the Maryland area as the Chesapeake Ripper. Much like the Trinity Killer, Hannibal maintained a deceptive facade as a kind and insightful psychiatrist. He enjoyed high society and the finer things in life, except for the fact that you never knew if he was serving you Coquilles Saint-Jacques or whether those scallops were actually human white meat. His background is kind of tropey- witnessing a horrific act of brutality (in this case, being fed his sister to survive a gruelling Eastern European winter) that irrevocably altered his mindset and turned him into a brutal, cold-hearted killer. However, the overall creepiness that surrounds the character (be it Anthony Hopkins or Mads Mikkelsen) is compelling and makes you fear for all those around him. His cool intelligence, merciless brutality and plethora of disposal methods probably make him the most formidable killer on this list also. Number of victims: 29 (Novels), 27 (Films (Excluding Manhunter)), 62 (TV Show) (The novel and film Lecter sits around the mark of Dean Corll, the Houston Mass Murderer, while television Lecter would top the list of worst American serial killers in confirmed victims alone and would make him the 8th worst serial killer in the world by confirmed number of victims.)
- The Origami Killer (Heavy Rain): Heavy Rain is a neo-noir detective thriller game from David Cage. You play as Ethan Mars, a mentally ill father searching for his kidnapped son; Norman Jayden, a passionate and drug-addicted FBI agent hunting for the infamous Origami Killer; Madison Paige, an investigative journalist looking for her big break, and Scott Shelby, a former cop and private eye digging into the Origami killer case. The Origami Killer kidnaps young boys in the fall and drowns them in rainwater before leaving them in abandoned lots near railway lines. As the game progresses, you discover that Scott Shelby is in fact the Origami Killer and is collecting evidence from the victim’s families in order to cover his tracks. The killer is a cold and methodical man, deftly avoiding the police and any attempts to catch him. There are multiple endings for every character and the three for the Origami Killer range from his death to him getting away with his crimes, Scott-free (-mic drop-). The Origami Killer is probably the weakest entry on this list, but that is more about Cage’s preference for style over substance as opposed to a direct fault with the character. He is also the most realistic character on this list with only eight victims. Believe it or not, most serial killers don’t cut huge swathes out of the population. Number of victims: 8 (plenty of US-based serial killers share this number of victims, the Happy Face killer and the Dating Game killer to name but two).
- The Dollmaker (DC): In the comics, The Dollmaker’s MO involves kidnapping children (mostly) and turning them into cybernetic slaves. This evolves into creating mannequin like figures out the skin and limbs of his victims. The MO finally peaks with the fourth ‘Dollmaker’, who uses her victims as unwilling organ donors to provide produce for the black market. In the DC TV show Gotham, Dollmaker, or Francis Dulmacher, is a surgeon who runs an island hospital for the wealthy, performing illegal cosmetic surgery and transplants with the bodies of kidnap victims, including the insufferable Fish Mooney. The third comic book iteration of the Dollmaker, Baron Mathis, makes an appearance on Arrow. After escaping from prison during a pivotal plot point, Baron Mathis begins kidnapping young women, suffocating them by pouring expanding polymer down their throats and dressing them like dolls for the police to find. The Dollmaker is a classic Batman villain- absolute evil, deranged and frightfully brutal. Number of victims: Unknown.
Which serial killers had you keeping the lights on at night? Let me know in the comments below!